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Petimony: Can I Get Support for my Pet in Divorce?

As divorce rates increase and more couples forgo having children, the battle over who gets custody of the family pet, visitation schedules with the pet, and how support for the pet is allocated is becoming an increasingly hot topic. Many people treat their fur babies as part of the family. However, in most states during the divorce process it is customary for pets to be considered as mere property in the equitable distribution scheme. Today society is less accepting of such a practice and have begun petitioning the courts to take a more personal approach. Some judges are now making exceptions and expanding common law to allow for more preferential treatment of pets. However, case law on the topic is still sparse.

What separates pets from other inanimate personal property is the amount of care and maintenance that they require, i.e. veterinary bills, cost of food or special diet, grooming, etc. Some courts have therefore gone so far as to award "petimony" to the custodial owner of the pet. Petimony is an alimony-like payment or economic support by one spouse for the continuing care of an animal. It is different from spousal support, which is compensation awarded during the divorce process or for some period of time thereafter in order to help maintain the marital lifestyle of the former spouse. Petimony is also different from child support, because the child has a right to maintenance from his or her parents whereas a pet does not.

In the case of Dickson v. Dickson, the divorcing parties agreed to share custody of their dog, and the husband was ordered to pay up to $150 a month for the dog's care and maintenance, although it was later modified due to a material change in circumstances that rendered the original order inequitable. (Ark Garland County Ch Ct, No. 94-1072, 14 October 1994).

Support is reoccurring and variable as the parties' needs and abilities change, but division of property is a one-time event. For this reason, courts have been reluctant to award petimony in large part due to the unavailability of court resources or an agency to monitor support for the pets. It is easier for courts to make a one-time assessed value of the pet and award the pet to one party, conditioned upon that person being responsible for the pet's care and upkeep. There is no inherent right to maintenance for pets as there is for children. However, there are options. Couples that are divorcing can arbitrate the pet issue during mediation. Some courts have approved settlement agreements that award not only custody to one party, but also petimony.

Under Florida and Tennessee law, pets are still viewed as personal property. As avid pet lovers, we at Cole Law Group PC understand that your pets mean much more to you than a piece of property; they are your family. Our attorneys will zealously work on your behalf to obtain custody of your beloved pet and seek maintenance support for your furry friend in arbitration or other out-of-court settlement.

Ashtin Henninger is an attorney in Cole Law Group's Tallahassee office. In addition to being a loving owner of four dogs herself, Ashtin is a member of the national Animal Legal Defense Fund and works with the Florida Bar Animal Law Committee researching animal-related issues.

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